I’ve been reading Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan by John K. Nelson. After some dry academic apologetics, he gets down to business and discusses sexual imagery in the important Kamigamo shrine in Kyoto. The Kamigamo priests are well aware of, and in fact are required to master, the meanings of all the religious symbols in the shrine, but the shrine does not advertise the sexual symbols in the official literature or on the public signs. According to Nelson, mostly the general Japanese public is not aware of the meanings of the symbols and the priests do not push it on what they feel would be a somewhat prudish, middle-class public. (This claim by Nelson surprises me as the Japanese are seemingly so open about sex in general, with their mangas and love hotels. In fact, they celebrate some pretty bawdy festivals which include giant phallases drunkenly paraded down the street. Perhaps Japanese attitudes towards sex are as convoluted as our own American hypocrisies.)

One of the sexual symbols is the aoi (hollyhock) motif, which appears throughout the shrine, carved into beams, printed on curtains, and designed as part of lanterns. The aoi consists of “two leaves at the base of a single, long stem with a slightly reddish, bell-shaped flower.” The architectural design (called an aoi layout) of the site includes a long, straight pathway flanked by the two main shrine buildings, all of which point directly at a sacred mountain. The official signs at Kamigamo also do not explain the founding myth of the shrine: a goddess finds an arrow in a river, puts the arrow under her “pillow,” and then becomes pregnant with the god of the shrine. My interest in Japanese shrines reinvigorated, I also come across the term imi, which is a temporary period of abstinence that Shinto priests (who are allowed to be married) observe to purify themselves before certain religious events.

I think about the ritual of Navy life: the ship’s deployment when the tangled sheets of the marriage bed are replaced by a kind of shrouded mourning, in body and in spirit. I no longer receive many words of support from friends or family during this time as everyone assumes one “gets used to” deployment, but what I find is each time the imi of deployment—when my husband gets to go do real Navy things on the rusty, stinky Navy ship, that bitch—is more and more difficult as the years pass. I resent it more than I did in the first years of marriage, when, quite frankly, we weren’t fused into a knowing look and an inside joke, the unified self that gradually emerged after these 14 years of marriage. I always “function” (go to work, keep the house, see friends, pay the bills), but something in me turns off, as if the electricity in the my brain were cut, and I must rely on candles which sputter and glow. I feel like I am sleepwalking, and joy and moments of laughter, when they come, seem surprising to me. I hear myself laughing, and wonder at the sound of it.

I don’t wonder at my laughter at his emails, in which he starts writing these Noel Coward jibes at pretty much everyone, except me, or during our phone calls when the ship pulls into a port, when he can mock me more gently and with the emotional audio content which he could not transmit via email. Then we enjoy the meandering, endless scramble of conversational subjects of a couple that has all the time in the world to tell each other everything. It’s the shorthand and intimacy of our years, so that a movie line is a whole paragraph and the name of a city is a metaphorical photo album.

We communicate now via email as often as possible (as opposed to 14 years ago when one had to write a real letter to the ship), but this paperless communication is sterile as one loses the touch of paper and handwriting and enclosed flowers and perfumed paper. The email has allowed us to write the small things, but somehow the larger themes can get lost in his requests for hot sauce and his preferred brand of deodorant.

For last year’s deployment I employed a distraction technique in which I became obsessed with Taylor Hicks. I wrote an email to the family about this last summer (2006) and continued with my calm, excellent descent into madness. Ask me anything about Taylor Hicks. No, don’t. This summer I purposely denied myself the comfort of an obsession for this relatively short four-month deployment to see how I could fly without it. I was numb and I tried to fill it with sake and pizza and udon and TV. You know: Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here.

When my husband comes home, we usually need a day to warily circle each other, feeling the vivid presence of our best friend who, for some reason, seems strange and new. We usually sit talking and eating, and I pour all my relief and skittish energy on him like holy water—until he chokes on it.

Then, when we’ve finished circling and come to rest, the imi will officially end, and I will be as impure and perfectly serene and spiritually realized as I can humanly be. The god will be back in place at the shrine.

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